Modern Mentorship Is Changing, But It’s Still About Relationships

UPDATED: April 2, 2022
PUBLISHED: December 31, 2021
Modern Mentorship Is Changing, But It's Still About Relationships

S​​ue Keever Watts has a simple story she likes to tell. One day she was lounging by the pool with a good magazine while her daughter practiced diving. 

“Rate my dives!” her daughter called. 

After each splash, Watts, immersed in her reading, rattled off random numbers. “Nine!” she exclaimed. “10!” “Eight!” 

At that, her daughter suddenly froze.

“Wait,” she wondered aloud. “Why was that one an eight?” 

In that moment, Watts realized her child wasn’t looking for affirmation; she was striving to get better with each and every dive. 

“It was such a good lesson,” Watts says, “because that’s what we look for from our mentors. People aren’t just looking for a pat on the back. They’re looking to get better. And that will never change.” 

But some things about mentorship have indeed evolved. Watts is the founder and owner of the Keever Group, a consulting company that helps businesses improve their effectiveness and internal communications. 

“For years, mentorship has been an ongoing topic with my clients,” the seasoned entrepreneur says. “I’ve seen companies put more resources into mentorship programs, but I’ve also seen how these programs can face so many challenges. There can be forced matches, a lack of chemistry between mentors and mentees, and people who feel obligated to take part in something they don’t want to do.”

Jeff Smith has seen those challenges, too. Smith is a leadership expert who, like Watts, consults a variety of organizations. He believes the concept of mentorship has undergone something of an evolution in recent years. 

“I think ‘mentorship culture’ is the right term for it,” he says. “You can Google ‘Do I need a mentor?’ right now and you’ll find endless amounts of articles telling you that you needed one yesterday and here’s how you should formally ask for one right this very second.” 

The formal approach is perfectly fine, Smith notes, as long as it works for you and your mentor.

“I believe mentoring is something that should only be initiated by the mentee,” he says. “Because mentoring, at its core, is a relationship.”

Through conversations with experts, mentors and mentees (some retired, others just beginning their careers) SUCCESS set out to understand how mentorship has changed and what that means for pursuing achievement today. Although the approach to mentorship may have evolved, it appears that some attributes remain timeless. 

A Lifelong Relationship

Heather Wagner Reed has never asked someone to be her mentor. She has also never had anyone formally ask her to be their mentor. Yet like a legendary football coach, the founder of the public relations and marketing agency, Juice Consulting, has a “tree” of mentees that spans cities, generations and even industries.

“Mentorship is how I’ve built my company,” says Wagner Reed, who has worked with restaurants, festivals and even Beyoncé. “I focus on cultivating talent, and I always tell people, ‘If you’re willing to learn and be committed, I’m going to have a place for you.’ ” 

For that reason, people end up staying with Wagner Reed’s company for long periods of time. Take it from Amber LaFrance, who cites Wagner Reed as a key mentor in her career. 

“When I interviewed with Heather, she looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have any PR experience. Why should I hire you?’ ” LaFrance recalls. “I looked back at her and said, ‘I want to do this. I’ll figure it out.’ ” 

And she did. LaFrance started as an intern, then got promoted. She worked for Juice Consulting for seven years before starting her own public relations agency, CultureHype. Now, she’s working on building her own “mentor tree.” 

“Because I was mentored by Heather, I’ve always paid it forward,” she says. “She taught me more than just how to be a good professional. She taught me how to be a good person.” 

Jim Dale, an advertising veteran who spent decades doing creative work, says that teaching kindness is a key trait that every mentor must have. 

When Dale was coming up in the cutthroat business environment of the 1980s, he says his colleagues mainly sought mentors who could help advance their careers and make them more cash. Then, as he built his own company, Dale saw firsthand how mentorship “became more about finding people who care about you.

“All of my mentors were great at what they did, but most importantly, they were great people,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how you find your mentor. As long as they make you a better professional and a better person, you’ve found someone special.”

Wagner Reed agrees. Twenty-five years into her career, she has had the pleasure of learning from several mentors. To this day, she remains in touch with each of them. 

“You can’t just glom on to someone and say, ‘I want your help,’ because there has to be some synergy there,” she says. “But when there’s synergy, you can have a lifelong relationship. I’ve had a few, and I firmly believe that’s why I’ve been successful.”

“Almost Like a Career Therapist”

Staci Parks carries a note of affirmation from one of her mentors wherever she goes. When she has a bad day, she takes out the note, reads it, and reminds herself that there are people in her corner, deeply invested in her success. 

“A mentor is almost like a career therapist,” says Parks, who works in health care marketing. “Like a therapist, I think you might need different mentors at different parts of your life.”

Smith agrees. The leadership expert and seasoned business consultant says his father was his first mentor. His dad was blind, so a young Smith helped him move and manage the family concessions stand. At that point in his life, he needed a mentor to show him the ropes and the core tenets of business. But as he got older, Smith found that he needed different mentors for new stages of his career. 

“Right now I need a mentor to help me handle the emotional side of business,” he says. “Those difficult conversations and difficult relationships are intangibles that I’m always trying to master, and I need someone who has been there, done that.” 

Smith also believes that our current “mentorship culture” is undervaluing an extremely important resource: retirees. 

“From a mentorship perspective, retirees are a gold mine,” he says.

Watts thinks so, too. The experienced consultant has seen companies invest in “mentor matching” software that uses algorithms to arrange mentorships, but she hasn’t seen enough organizations turn to former employees or recent retirees to guide their new hires. That would be incredibly beneficial, she argues, as would alleviating the pressure that currently permeates every conversation about mentorship.

“I almost want to use a different word than mentor,” Watts says. “That term has become so loaded with anxiety, when what we’re really talking about here is relationships.”

That’s what Parks has learned in her career thus far: No matter how you find them, the best mentorships are relationships.

“Things like openness and kindness will never go out of style,” Parks says. “No matter how corporate culture changes, we will always need open, kind and attentive mentors if we want our teams to be successful.”

In other words, when it’s time for our turn on the diving board, we don’t need someone to shout “Nine!” or “10!” We need someone who prevents us from belly flopping. 

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” Watts says. “But you gotta pay attention to ask, ‘How’s my diving?’ ”

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by @Chawki/Twenty20

Tyler Hicks is a writer based in Dallas. His work has been published in Texas Monthly, the Houston Chronicle, D Magazine and The Dallas Morning News, among other publications. When he's not writing, he enjoys reading mystery novels and watching old movies with his wife.